It's Tuesday evening, and I'm grabbing a 6 p.m. yoga class at a generic studio located somewhere in the paved-over wilds of Southern California's San Fernando Valley. The teacher, a newly minted graduate of a local training program, instructs her brand of vinyasa flow in a way that delivers all of the sweat and none of the depth. And that's OK with me. I'm not looking for enlightenment tonight; I'm looking to burn off that caramel-pecan brownie I enjoyed with my lunch.
Tatiana (not her real name), the teacher, is one of those ex-dancers who naturally gravitate to yoga in their postperformance years to dazzle envious stiffies like me with their grace, fluidity, and amazing flexibility. Tatiana focuses more on the physical form of the practice than on its philosophical underpinnings. And, again, that's just fine: Her form is fantastic, her manner both soothing and encouraging, and her instructions clear, concise, and delivered in plain English (we're doing Down Dog, Triangle, Warrior, Side Angle, rather than Whateverasana).
But then she surprises me and goes all Sanskrit on us. "To power up your poses, apply Mula Bandha," she says. Half the class pauses mid-Sun Salutation to stare blankly at her, while the other half carries on, either ignoring her or faking it. One brave soul a few mats down finally asks: "What's that?"
Good question, I think to myself, as I await Tatiana's answer. Mula Bandha is the Root Lock, she explains. "When we apply Mula Bandha, we get in touch with our core muscles," she says. As for how to do it, her instructions are simple: "Basically, you just squeeze your anus shut and hold it."
Huh. Depending on whom you ask, Tatiana's version of Mula Bandha is either a gross oversimplification or an outright misrepresentation. But it's the way many instructors teach this technique, which is —like so much else about yoga —esoteric, intuitive, and intertwined with the ultimate goal: union with god.
It is safe to say that nobody has ever squeezed their way to enlightenment; otherwise our uptight, type-A society would be rife with saints and sages. So what, exactly, is Mula Bandha? I asked a few of the best teachers from around the country. Here's what I found out.
The word bandha is usually translated as "lock," though, like most Sanskrit words, it has many nuanced meanings. "It comes from the root bandh, which means to bind, to fix, or to stop," explains Carlos Pomeda, a scholar of Sanskrit and Tantra who teaches yoga philosophy within the Anusara Yoga system.
Four bandhas are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita, two classical yoga texts: Mula Bandha is generally practiced in conjunction with asana; Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) are more often associated with pranayama, yoga's breathing practices. (To learn more about the latter two, see Keep a Cool Head and Fly Right.) The fourth, Maha Bandha (the Great Lock) is a combination of all three.
"The bandhas are specific positions of the body and manipulations of the organs designed to prevent the flow of energy from escaping the body," Pomeda explains. In other words, the bandhas are mechanisms by which an accomplished yogi can direct the flow of prana, the universal life-force energy that animates and unites all of us.
So the bandhas are physical movements, yes, but also much more than that: They serve as a gateway into the mental, psycho-emotional, and subtle energy planes. In any given session, it's easy to get caught up in the physical practice, with all its brownie-burning, butt-firming benefits, and totally forget that the physical component of yoga is just part of the preparation for enlightenment.
"We go through the physical body as a doorway, but the effects on the physical body are secondary," says David Life, cofounder of New York City's Jivamukti Yoga Center. We may be in class to work out that part of ourselves that wants to look great in tight jeans and baby tees, but the real point of our yoga practice is to shape up that part of our being that allows our truest nature to be experienced and expressed in the external world.
Tatiana was right —Mula Bandha does help us engage our core muscles and power up our poses. But that's not the half of it. "It's really about awakening consciousness, which is much more interesting than 'contract your anus,"" says Life. "But, you know, you've got to start somewhere, and you don't usually start with the esoteric teachings."
Let's Get Physical
And so, Life says, you start with the physical movement, which in the case of Mula Bandha is a toning and lifting of the pelvic floor. It sounds simple enough, but it is taught in countless ways. Do any of these descriptions sound familiar to you?
- Lift the perineum
Draw up the cervix and vaginal walls
Contract your muscles as if you were stopping and starting the flow of urine
Do a Kegel exercise
Draw the coccyx toward the pubic bone
And —yes —contract your anus.
If several of them do, you may be wondering, which one is correct? and, why is this action so hard to describe? The answer is, Mula Bandha is both a subtle movement and one that involves a complex anatomical structure that's not easy to isolate. "There's a whole sling of musculature that extends from the tailbone to the pubic bone and supports the internal organs," Life says. "What you're trying to do is lift that sling."
Unless you're an anatomist or a fully realized yogi (in which case, you can stop reading here), chances are you've never even heard of most of the muscles that make up the sling Life refers to. They're a complex group comprising the deep and superficial transverse perineal muscles, the bulbocavernosus, the ischiocavernosus, the sphincter urethrae membranaceae, the pubococcygeus, and the levator ani. Forming a diamond shape at the base of your pelvis, they are bordered by the pubic bone in the front, the coccyx in the back, and the sitting bones on the sides.
Unfortunately, instructions in the ancient texts are vague at best; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika instructs the student to contract the muscles of the perineum/cervix and hold for as long as possible, then release. The Gheranda Samhita recommends a more encompassing contraction of below-the-belt muscles. Once upon a time, when yoga was taught one-on-one and a guru could guide and encourage a disciple to find Mula Bandha for him- or herself, it wasn't a problem that the texts offered only a rough outline. But now that we're divorced from the guru-to-student dynamic, even the most seasoned teachers do little more than recommend a dose of patience and a willingness to experiment with all of the different instructions you hear until you eventually discover Mula Bandha for yourself. "There are times when I've told a class to contract anything they can find down there just to give them something to do," Life says. "Hopefully, they'll do their own investigation and get it on a deeper level."
To help his students find it, Richard Freeman, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and the director of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, offers this hint: "If you exhale very fully and smoothly, you'll notice that the end of exhalation creates a natural toning in the pelvic floor muscles that allows you to get the last of the breath out. This is the point where Mula Bandha is set. It's really complex but really simple. Once you get it, it's like, Of course!
Tim Miller, director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, California, agrees. For all the confusion about what it is and how to do it, he says, even the greenest beginners may find themselves practicing Mula Bandha —and not even know it. "Mula Bandha is, in a sense, hard-wired into the poses, and as you do them you'll discover you're doing Mula Bandha, unwittingly sometimes," he explains. "It just happens.
So, once you "get it," how will the bandhas change your practice? In the Ashtanga tradition, Mula Bandha is so critical to the correct performance of asana that K. Pattabhi Jois, the leader of the tradition, instructs his students to keep Mula Bandha engaged throughout every practice; in fact, he's often quoted as saying that it should stay engaged 24/7. That's a metaphorical overstatement, of course, meant to emphasize the importance of Mula Bandha, which when mastered and used correctly has the potential to transform even the most lackluster practice.
Mula Bandha is what helps Ashtanga practitioners find the balance they need to tackle arm balances and inversions, and the strength and control they need for difficult tasks, such as jumping through and jumping back. But the list of the physical benefits to a yoga practice is nearly endless, and Freeman can rattle them off handily: "It's grounding, so students feel much more stable. They won't lose balance. Correct movement of limbs becomes more natural. When they do a backbend, they'll be less likely to compress the spine. They'll find more space under the belly, which is very convenient for twists."
"By practicing Mula Bandha, you gain a real sense of the central axis of the body," says Freeman, a student of Jois. "You learn to move from the lower belly, feeling the pelvic floor and letting it participate in aligning the body. It will help you integrate the movements of the body and give you the sense that you are composed of radiance...One becomes juicier, more intuitive, more sensitive, and more able to express feeling with the entire body through every movement."
Iyengar teachers lead students into Mula Bandha with simple instructions that emphasize its practical application within each pose, explains advanced Iyengar instructor Joan White, owner of the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga School of Central Philadelphia. "The beauty of the Iyengar system is that it gives form through direction that's easy to digest," White says. She offers an example: "When we sit at the beginning of class, we are told to sit exactly on the center of the sit bones and to make sure that the space is even on either side of the anus, that the pelvic floor should not be descending, that the pubic bone should be running perpendicular to the floor, and that the outer hips should be sucked in. As we're inhaling to get ready for invocation, Gita Iyengar will often say that the sides of the navel should lift. The effect of these directions creates Mula Bandha."
In the Iyengar tradition of yoga, Mula Bandha is not often taught overtly, partly because B.K.S. Iyengar believes it can be misused by those who might be distracted by one of its enticing side effects: increased sexual power. Still, it is an integral part of the practice, White says. "The practice of asana can be very external," she notes. "But when you add Mula Bandha, you are drawn toward your own source, your own core. It is the path inward."
The Inside Line
That inward path, let's not forget, is the point of yoga. "I think it's important for people to remember the original context of hatha yoga," says Pomeda, who was a Vedic monk in the Sarasvati order for 18 years. "This opens up your perspective, puts the practice into a much larger framework. From that reference point, all practices are geared to the awakening of kundalini and the attainment of the highest realization."
Kundalini is the feminine energy that is classically depicted as a serpent coiled and asleep at the base of the spine, which is also the seat of Mula Bandha. When she awakens, she rises up through the spine to merge with universal consciousness at the crown chakra, found at the top of the head. The bandhas —particularly Mula Bandha and Jalandhara engaged together—can be used to help create the internal pressure necessary to roust her out of her comfy home, where she might otherwise snooze away forever.
To create that pressure, you have to understand another branch of subtle anatomy: the vayus (vital airs) —patterns of energy that flow through the body. In the Ashtanga tradition, yogis use Mula Bandha to help reverse the flow of apana vayu, the naturally downward-moving energy that's responsible for the body's eliminative and reproductive processes (it comes into play with every bowel movement, menstrual cycle, and birth, for instance). "Typically, the apana is said to have its root in the pelvic floor," says Freeman. "If you exhale very fully and smoothly, you'll notice that it takes attention right to the root. Then when you inhale, you draw your attention through the root as if you were drawing a string through the seat of exhalation."
The reversal of apana vayu alone does not cause a kundalini release, but it helps create the right conditions for spiritual elevation, says Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care, an ashram in Knoxville, Tennessee. "The bandhas are the bridles we use to train the vayus, such as one would use a training string to tame a falcon," says Harrigan. "Training the vayus is an important and necessary step in setting the conditions not only for better health and more vitalized energy, but also for improved spiritual development."
And though spiritual life certainly does not end with Mula Bandha, it does, in a sense, begin there. "Engaging Mula Bandha creates a foundation," Harrigan says. "The root of the tree is important for the entire tree. Likewise, Mula Bandha is important for making asana and pranayama beneficial. Without the bandhas, these exercises have only physical effects."
For Freeman, the practice of Mula Bandha is —and should be —an act of devotion; he was taught by Jois to picture Ganesh, the elephant god, seated on the pelvic floor, and to see Ganesh stand up with the contraction of the bandha. "What often happens is that people think, 'I'm just going to squeeze my anal sphincter muscles together,'" he explains. "Then they think, 'I'm doing Mula Bandha!' Ego is involved, and the practice doesn't produce the desired fruit. It should be done with great humility —otherwise, you're just becoming anal retentive."
To learn more about how to integrate Mula Bandha into your daily asana practice, read Mula Bandha in Action.
Hillari Dowdle is the former editor in chief of Yoga Journal and of Natural Health.